Most of the time, Lollapalooza’s scheduling seems left to the whims of fate, the daily lineup strung together seemingly at random so that indie poppers bump up against metal acts and soul throwbacks open for folky singer-songwriters. It makes for some wildly jarring juxtapositions, with occasional stumbles into transcendence.
Saturday was different, at least at the south end of Chicago’s Grant Park. The ascendance of headliners Mumford & Sons rippled all the way into the afternoon, where banjo-friendly arrangements and country twang informed the bulk of the performances: Court Yard Hounds brought their pop-friendly version of crossover bluegrass, Eric Church stomped through a set of outlaw Southern rock, and twee Irish strummers Little Green Cars crafted colorful tapestries out of all manner of acoustic thread. (The National, sandwiched in between Church and semi-main eventers the Lumineers, must have been deeply confused by all the headband-wearing sunflower girls hanging around, as they’re used to playing for broodier types. Still, they did dedicate “England” to Mumford & Sons.)
It all led up to a triumphant turn by Mumford & Sons, who drew a massive throng of folk-hungry youth to sing along with Marcus Mumford’s every bellow and wail. There wasn’t a single tune across Mumford’s nearly two-hour set that wasn’t greeted as a massive hit, though the gathering masses reserved extra glee for “Little Lion Man,” “I Will Wait,” and “Lover of the Light.”
Mumford & Sons are not showmen, and their performance was free of both bells and whistles, but their songs clearly resonate across a wide spectrum, and they’re savvy enough to get out of the way of their trainload of sing-alongs.
Those who had no interest in bearded earnestness had to do quite a bit of walking to the opposite side of Grant Park, though their efforts were rewarded. At the other end of that spectrum both physically and aesthetically lurked Kendrick Lamar, who used his early evening set to add to his already impressive superstar bona fides. This year’s Lollapalooza is relatively light on hip-hop, but Kendrick seized his opportunity as the only main stage rapper and made a case for himself as the most electric stage performer in the genre at the moment.
Though the impressive crowd gathered clearly adored the big tracks from Good Kid, M.a.a.d. City, Kendrick didn’t have a holster of huge hits to pull from so he had to go to work, carefully taking the temperature of the crowd as he swaggered through a series of aggro-fied versions of his songs: He extended his “F—in’ Problems” verse into a slightly more metal direction, and the already-aggressive “m.A.A.d. city” morphed into a sprawling anti-authoritarian howl.
Perhaps his most impressive trick was shifting effortlessly between the sing-songy croon displayed on his more interior moments (including the slinky “Poetic Justice”) and a tougher, more guttural bark. Both were on display during the performance’s centerpiece “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” a roller-coaster of languid hums and rapid-fire raps. So fierce was Kendrick’s delivery that it inspired crowd-surfing—in fact, at one point Lamar stopped the show dead in its tracks so he could admire a guy in a wheel chair coasting above a sea of hands. He seemed genuinely surprised and joyful, something the crowd gave right back to him.
He wasn’t the only act changing the game on Saturday. In their penultimate show as a live act (they’ll end this tour at Chicago’s tiny Metro late Sunday night), the Postal Service rode a decade of anticipation into their indie coronation as the north-side headliner. Since part of the group’s allure was always that it sort of didn’t exist (frontman Ben Gibbard cheekily announced them as, “a band from nowhere”), the songs from their one-and-done release Give Up still sound fresh, and their live iterations lent them a more humanizing quality. Credit for that goes to singers Jenny Lewis and Jen Wood, whose contributions to Give Up really stood out during “We Will Become Silhouettes,” “Turn Around,” and “Brand New Colony.”
Since Lewis has been out of the spotlight for a while, it was easy to forget what natural charisma she has—at times, she overshadowed Gibbard completely even though she wasn’t doing much of anything. For his part, Gibbard is a totally different performer than he is with Death Cab For Cutie—still forceful and committed, but also freer and looser. The abandon with which he threw himself into these songs (it was especially impressive on “Clark Gable”) turned what is usually a somber collection of tunes into something closer to actual fun.
Gibbard had a lot to live up to, as not only did Lamar stalk that stage a mere hour before, but it was graced by soul man Charles Bradley in the afternoon. Decked out in an electric blue suit, Bradley used his crying man roar to belt out Stax-Volt style horn funk. “Do you wanna go to church?” he asked, apparently inviting everyone to Our Lady of Strutting and Shaking for a sweaty, funky exorcism. Then he did a split and bolted for a few minutes to change into a white dinner jacket. This man was a professional.
Also a professional? Jordan Cook, who records and performs as Reignwolf. Across the field before Bradley’s set, Cook churned out a different take on the blues, running it through a meat grinder and spraying it all over the garage. He opened his set all by himself, unleashing chunky riffs and jittery solos while operating a kick drum with his feet. Like a one-man White Stripes, he upped the ante at the end by actually sitting behind his drum kit and busting out rim shots while still cranking on his axe. He put the gimmick away and was joined by a proper drummer and a bassist, which let everybody pick their jaws off the pavement and drop them right back again while Cook churned and wailed.
The Lumineers had a similar spot that Imagine Dragons did—though they managed to make it through their hour without blowing their electricity. (And honestly, if Lumineers lost power, would anybody notice?) They boldly bucked festival protocol and dropped in their signature hit “Ho Hey” very early in the evening, then filled out the rest of their set with shambolic acoustic rave-ups and at least one sojourn into the crowd to bring the music closer to the people. Still, by the time they closed everything out with “Big Parade,” people were already bolting to catch the opening of the Mumford set—had they kept “Ho Hey” in the holster, they might have kept them in place three minutes longer.
The middle of the afternoon got by on by-the-numbers brilliance from the progressively funkier Matt & Kim, cool pixie Ellie Goulding (who was really treated like a star), former Jack White pianist Brooke Waggoner, and aggro-synthers Foals. Of all the acts on the verge, Brooklyn (by way of South Africa) multiculturalists St. Lucia might have stumbled on the next big thing; the new song “Wait For Love” (from their forthcoming full-length debut), a breezy bop of a tune, sounds like an absolute smash in this post-Vampire Weekend universe.
Those are the kind of moments that make the Lollapalooza digging worthwhile—sure, there’s plenty of expected greatness, but there are also ample opportunities for nobodies to become somebody, and stars to become icons.